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Reflections on Context and Narrative

The Context and Narrative module has been an excellent course and a highly enjoyable period of learning and development. Realising just how critical the elements of context and narrative are allowed my photography to become increasingly more specific and refined as I progressed through the course.

Initially important milestones were assignments 2 and 3 which prompted a deeper level of thinking along with a number of key exhibitions I attended; William Eggleston at NPG, an OCA study day Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s at TPG exhibition and the UAL Graduate exhibition Black Blossoms were all very influential. 

Another turning point was the Performing for the Camera exhibition at Tate Modern; what was significant here was an annoyance at myself for not gaining more from the experience. I rushed the morning as I also had work commitments but from that point onwards I became much more intense in prioritising the course.

From this point onwards my research and photographic work in general found a much clearer direction and I began to feel that I was building on a solid foundation.

I was now adding layers of knowledge, research, experience and my personal perspectives were developing and I really enjoyed this; I seemed to be able to work for longer and the course became a part of my everyday routine.

I worked hard to improve my technical output so that I could articulate ideas and begin to genuinely communicate visually through my photographic practice.

I have enjoyed the beginnings of being able to make visual images that work and make sense.

I think most of all I have enjoyed finding out that I have my own interpretation of reality whilst learning to question the interpretation of others’.    

Another major change has been to participate more actively with other people and groups such as the OCA forum, study days, external galleries and artists. This has helped my confidence and knowledge grow and has also engendered a comfort in seeking out critical feedback that is now an invaluable part of my creative process.

Equally I have also grown in confidence in my ability to make artistic decisions and to be fully committed to my best intuitive instincts.

The highpoint was concluding assignment 5 and then being able to show the work in a members exhibition at the Ort Gallery in Birmingham (see next post). This experience opened up a whole new perspective for my work.

The thought of making photography and art for people to see, think about and consider is genuinely exhilarating.

I also reached out to Susan Gardiner the author of the book “The Wanderer – the story of Frank Soo” (2016) (my original inspiration for assignment 5) who returned with the following message to myself,

“Allan, apologies for not replying before but I’ve only just spotted your message. Thanks for sending it. It’s wonderful that Frank is inspiring other people in this way. You can get in touch with me by email, history and football are my great interests so more than happy to help with your future projects. Regards, Susan”

I want to leave as many doors open as is possible and just keep soaking up new ideas and information to see where this takes me. I have also learned the benefits of true reflection and how thoughts and ideas develop and change over time.

I am again taking lots of images, making pictures and practising my photography and I am really enjoying that and working hard to recognise the balance between reading and practical development.

I now feel much more capable and confident in my photographic practice but I maybe still need to work to really understand how to structure the learning log so that it perhaps becomes more of a journal than a textbook, and properly reflects the broad development which actually takes place.

I am perhaps more than ever motivated and enthusiastic about progressing forward with this OCA photography degree course.

Thank you

Allan O’Neill

PS: I would like to make a personal thank you to my tutor Wendy McMurdo who has been a fantastic mentor throughout and her professionalism and approachability have ensured that I have remained challenged throughout whilst having the confidence to progress and enjoy the course.

Frank Soo by Allan O’Neill showing at the Ort Gallery Member’s Exhibition, Birmingham

ort gallery_-1193-2Caption card for Frank Soo 

During this module I have interacted actively with my peers through the OCA discussion forums and I have begun to see how the photography degree course develops through the various modules and into level 3 which includes the sustaining your practice module.

Through this I have begun to imagine and recognise some of the components that may contribute to being able to eventually practice as an independent artist.

Following my tutor feedback session for assignment 5 I was in an enthusiastic mood and felt that I had finished the course well and I had begun to look around locally for opportunities to show Frank Soo my final submission.

The Ort Gallery is an arts centre in Birmingham which has managed to attract some very interesting artists such as film-maker and artist Kristina Cranfeld and is a gallery I have grown to support. What I also like about the Ort Gallery is it’s accessibility and that it is a location outside of London.

So when the chance arose to submit work for their member’s exhibition I thought that it might present an opportunity to push myself into a whole new experience. I was still surprised but also overjoyed when they informed me that my work had been accepted and I received the appropriate instructions.

The Gallery’s board of Directors were the panel and as part of the acceptance we were advised that they would need details of the actual size of the piece plus our statement and description of the work; and that we should attend a day to be involved in hanging the work and organising the exhibition which was a real learning experience.

ort gallery_-1190-2Organising the exhibition

The first and biggest mistake that I made was to frame the image at the original size that I had submitted to my tutor at 10×8 inches. As soon as I walked into the gallery I realised that I could and should have had a much larger print, possibly an A3 type size. When I was in discussion with the gallery’s founding director Josephine Reichert she also mentioned how much she had enjoyed reading about the project and that she felt that it would work well in a larger format.

This first lesson of focusing on a potential exhibition event and not purely as a student course submission is one that I will take forward and this has helped me to start considering my work from a whole new perspective.

Meeting the other participants was also really interesting as quite a few were Birmingham based practicing artists themselves as well as students and enthusiasts. I received lots of encouragement and useful advice throughout the day and also made several good contacts which hopefully will help as I progress.

ort gallery_-1210-2My model for Frank Soo discussing the experience on opening night

The opening night was a tremendous evening and I was surprised at the number of people that turned up to see the exhibition. Being able to view your own personal work on a gallery wall with the caption plate detailing the project was an experience I had never imagined.

As a student attending exhibitions I have n’t really thought about what the experience is like for the artist but this exercise has opened my eyes massively to the potential that exists and I must admit that I found the whole experience extremely rewarding.

Whilst this is obviously quite a low profile event I do feel that the experience of showing my project was an excellent exercise to conclude this course and provided the chance to meet the ultimate challenge – to put our work out there to be seen and critiqued by people.

I received a brief mention in a review of the exhibition provided by Lisa Williams of ArtsBrum of online Whats on guide to Birmingham.

“But art is something that should be seen, not read about, so i’ll keep it brief and introduce you to just a few pieces that caught my eye.

Have you ever considered how much of history has been airbrushed out of what we know today? Neither had I, until coming across the constructed photography of Allan O’Neill. Next time you’re chatting to a football fan, be sure to ask them if they’ve ever heard of Frank Soo, but first, give yourself some food for thought by going to check out Allan’s piece.” (Williams, L. 2017)


The review can be read in full at:


The gallery have organised a follow up workshop where all artists can discuss their work and we will receive critical feedback from the directors and I look forward to this event.


More information can be found about the Ort Gallery at

Reflections on assignment 5

I will start off with comments made whilst drafting out how my working processes for this assignment came together, “a huge learning curve but also a fantastic experience and the most enjoyable photography project that I have been involved in.

My skills, confidence and all-round competence have developed but so have my personal standards and expectations and I can now see how far I have to go to get to the levels of competence and performance that I would eventually like to achieve.”

I enjoyed researching and developing the concept for the assignment around identity, marginalisation, re-imagination and constructed narratives and I believe that this assignment has in many different ways has much potential for development. I also enjoyed the close personal connection that I had with this piece of work and this definitely helped fuel my ideas and created a greater motivation to produce a great result.

My tutor feedback was very positive on all levels and thankfully recognised my attempts to continually raise standards and build up my professional processes to facilitate this progression; I feel that I really left no stone unturned in preparing for this final stage but I am pleased that I went to such lengths – but also that my peers, tutor, family and friends were all pleased with the final work – this makes everything all worthwhile and is very satisfying.

I feel that my work has finally reached that elusive “next level” and I am in a much stronger position to critique my own work against contemporary professional standards and recognise that my journey of development has only just begun.

Assignment 5 Making it up: ‘The Constructed image’


Figure 1 Frank Soo by Allan O’Neill February 2017

Description of photographic submission

This is a constructed photographic image that re-imagines the life of Frank Soo and contributes to a growing movement that intends to give him recognition as a major sporting role model to the British born Chinese community.

Background to subject

Frank Soo was a true pioneer of English football representing England 9 times between 1942-1945 and playing 326 club games between 1933-1950 of which 173 were for top-flight club Stoke City where he was made club captain in 1938. Frank also served in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War and captained the RAF football team during this period.

Born in Derbyshire in 1914 Frank had a English mother and Chinese father and is still the only British Chinese footballer ever to represent England.

Football writer Susan Gardiner recently wrote about this extraordinary man in the book The Story of Frank Soo (2016); Gardiner says, “Frank Soo is in many ways the forgotten man of 20th century football. In his time he was a household name, his life chronicled by national newspapers in Britain.” (Gardiner, S. 2016) 

“Whatever the reasons for Frank Soo’s disappearance from the narrative of football history, this book is an attempt to rekindle interest in a significant figure who was a hugely admired and skilful footballer, a charming and charismatic man, and a role model.” (Gardiner, S. 2016)

On a different level this assignment explores identity, representation and role models within the context of social culture and the experiences of the British Chinese community.

I was born and brought up in Lancashire with a Hong Kong Chinese mother and English father so this story is of significant personal interest as it offers an opportunity to consider some of the factors that would have impacted my own personal identity.

How we can also explore the limits and the role of the photographic image

On a further level we can also consider certain theoretical issues around the photographic medium such as how mainstream social and cultural history effectively obscures or airbrushes certain thingspeople, events – completely out of our social reality and allows entry only on the terms dictated by conventional norms and thinking.

 Through a process of re-imagination we can question previously stated facts and histories as we examine alternative viewpoints that may conflict with or contradict existing narratives.

We can explore whether photographs can ever be objective representations and we, in effect, question the nature of the medium’s authority.

We are encouraged to consider what isn’t included in the photographer’s frame and in turn what history may have chosen to exclude.

So by constructing this image we also explore the veracity of the photographic medium and it’s uneasy relationship with the real or reality.

Artistic inspirations and themes

This is a challenge to the conventional belief in an objective, universal and unequivocal picture of social and cultural reality and history. The following sources provided the specific inspiration for the assignment and relevant research articles have been posted on my learning log as indicated.

(1) S. Gardiner’s book The Wanderer: The story of Frank Soo. Author Susan Gardiner re-animates the scene where Frank Soo represents England for the first time. “Whether these were the proudest moments of Frank Soo’s career as a professional footballer it is impossible to say but they must surely have been among them.” (Gardiner, S. 2016:1) (SEE HERE)

(2) Artist Zoe Leonard and film-maker Cheryl Dunye collaborated to create photographs which provide a narrative chronicling the life of the fictional character Fae Richards, an African-American actress born in the early 20th century through to her old age and involvement in the civil rights movement. Dunye attributes her photographic falsification of a life history to the lack of information recorded in real life.

“The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” (Cheryl Dunye)

Through the use of photographic and archival conventions Leonard and Dunye successfully borrow from the lives of historical figures to create a believable narrative that explores questions about what is actually left out of history and it’s records. (SEE HERE)

 (3) The idea of re-animation originally came to mind when I first saw Trish Morrissey’s Seven Years (2001-2004) and then later again in her Ten People In A Suitcase (2016) where she was responding to an archive of historical photographs recording the lives of people from an industrial town in Finland.

Morrissey says, “In order to create these new photographs, I had to imagine the events that led up to this moment in the character’s lives, and in doing so, felt closer to the town itself.  The photographs transcend mere re-enactments, they are embodiments of real individuals who are more than just their snap shot.” (Morrissey, T. 2016) (SEE HERE)

An artistic and visual theme of this submission is this idea that new photographs that can re-animate and inhabit lives and events from the past.

(4) Neil Kenlock who photographed the lives of Black Britons who faced severe racial discrimination whilst living in Brixton during the 1960s and 1970s.

In her book Susan Gardiner says that, “In 1975 Frank told a reporter of the Stoke Sentinel that he believed that there was one reason why he had not been picked more often for England: because of my Chinese blood.” (Gardiner, S. 2016:2)

I reflected on this quotation with Neil Kenlock in mind when he said in an interview for the BBC, “I was trying to capture strength and proudness and that I decided that I would never click the camera unless I see strength in that person’s eyes and body. And if you look at my images you almost know it’s one of mine because the subject is always very sure of themselves.” (SEE HERE)

The construction of the image


Figure 2: The kit

I purchased an old photograph of Frank Soo from Ebay (£3.65) and made a visual space for reflections and to develop a familiarity and personal bond bringing myself closer to Frank’s life.

From the internet, charity and sports shops I developed costume and props and I purchased a vintage style Stoke City shirt, an old style pair of brown leather boots and a brown leather football that were complimented by non-branded plain coloured red and black shorts and socks to complete the 1940s look.

I visited local pitches before settling on a football ground that had an old style white single bar fence surrounding the pitch but with no modern stadium or advertising. This would give the feel of an old-fashioned football training ground.

I persuaded my son to be the model although we had to wait two months for his hair to grow so that we could achieve the brylcreemed short, back and sides hairstyle of the 1940s.

Each aspect of the proposed image was tested through photo shoots assessing each component. I tested the costume and props in a dress rehearsal as a sense check; to make sure that the overall concept would work in the way that I imagined.

Stance, posture, gestures and gaze were all experimented with prior to the final shoot to avoid creative amnesia and to control as many components as was possible. I wanted to portray a character that possessed a self-respect, inner strength and determination but that also carried the sense of a modest and grounded character. With this in mind I wanted to avoid making the subject and image appear too self-indulgent or dramatic.

I also used Kate Peter’s Olympians as a sort of reference point but did n’t want the subject to appear too gladiatorial.

I experimented with different exposures, viewpoints, and depth of field by using different lens and settings before I finalised a selection of 50mm DX lens (effective focal length 75mm), 1/250, f3.2, 100 ISO suitable for portraiture whilst using off camera flash.


Figure 3: Full body shot

The final crop was selected instead of a full body portrait, which I felt was too isolated and ordinary. I wanted to develop a more dynamic, intimate and nuanced portrait that had an intensity and focus around the facial expression, gaze and the red striped shirt.

Surrounding space was required to add to the context but I wanted to avoid isolation from the subject as again I felt that this would create too much emotional distance from the viewer. I decided to opt for an 8×10 aspect as again I just felt it was more successful having also experimented with 1×1, 4×6 aspects.

I practised extensively with off camera flash with an octobox so that I could light the image empathetically and gently lift the subject out from the background without making the scene appear too unnatural. I wanted to avoid over dramatic lighting that would dominate the image and it’s subject. My final consideration around lighting was that I would make the final shoot in overcast conditions to achieve the effects of diffusion.

For post processing I used Adobe Lightroom in manipulating the saturation of the reds and greens to create a sense of the past without resorting to a black and white conversion. By making a colour image I felt that a contemporary feel would be retained.

The challenge was to construct an image that re-imagined a moment from the past but was also a contemporary image. I wanted to recognise and re-imagine the life of the subject whilst leaving a creative, reflective space for the viewer without causing confusion; so that the viewer could ask their own questions and make their own interpretation.

As a final sense check that the project worked I presented the image with supporting notes to the OCA discussion forum and received some very positive feedback all round. The process of receiving critical feedback definitely assisted in forming a deeper understanding and relationship with the image.

There was a very useful debate around the goalposts in the background with opinions offered on both sides of the argument and the dilemma was simply that the image background was potentially cleaner without them. At the same time without them the scene then began to look more like a horse racing course instead of a football pitch and therefore lost relevant information and some of it’s context.


Figure 4: No posts

This I felt would cause the image to lose part of it’s individuality or hint of nuance and therefore it’s intrinsic character would change. Ultimately I decided to include the section of goalposts in the image background as I decided that there was not that much of a critical disturbance to the visual balance and not to lose the information was much more important to the image.

Also one of my peers noticed an awkward hand holding the ball that she felt was an effective way of implying the construction of the image and whilst I completely agreed that this was a great point – I had not planned this.

Concluding remarks

Frank Soo’s legacy does not match his career achievements as the only ever English Chinese footballer to represent his Country and as such the British Chinese community have been denied what should be an established role model; but recognition for Frank’s life and career has begun to gain some momentum.

Within mainstream social culture many minority groups are denied a balanced representation and at times even the most basic recognition. This process denies the development of positive role models that are essential for the progression and voice of these marginalised groups and this silencing ultimately denies their place in social and cultural history.

 Lui Hai Luang wrote for New Statesman ‘Where exactly are my British Chinese role models?’ (2013). By recognising Frank Soo’s life and achievements we confront this process of marginalisation. (SEE HERE)

Through this process of re-imagination we have created an image that questions previously established histories and offers an alternative viewpoint that effectively conflicts and contrasts with existing and accepted narratives.

In this particular case that generally accepted narrative would be that English born Chinese footballers have played no significant part in the National team or indeed in football’s history.

In a nostalgic comparison of football in modern and historical times T Glynne-Jones in the book Football yesterday and today includes only 3 images (in a book of over 200 images) of non-white people to illustrate the English game; the images of Asian or Black players are used primarily to depict football as a game played in Asian, African or South American countries.

Going forward I can see there is huge potential for development around the question of identity and representation and how photography plays a role in the creation of role models, stereotypes and social and cultural history in general and I am very keen to explore this further possibly in different ways.

This assignment focuses on a number of universal themes and it’s relationship with the game of football is almost co-incidental; but with the sport’s huge social and cultural influence and history perhaps there is more to explore within this global phenomenon also.

This has been a hugely important project that has benefitted myself on a personal level as well as in photographic and artistic terms and it has proved to be a fitting end to the excellent Context and Narrative course.


 Appiah, K,A.(2016) Reith Lectures/Mistaken Identities: Creed, Country, Color, Culture – lecture 4: Culture. Radio 4 website transcript can be accessed AT: (accessed 3/1/17)

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The key concepts. London: Bloomsbury Academic. (pp. 67-86).

 Baylis, G. (2016) ‘Hidden People’ In: Source The Photographic Review issue 87 pp. 30-39.

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now. London: Thames and Hudson. (pp. 18-46).

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph As Contemporary Art (3rd ed.) London: Thames and Hudson. (pp. 49-79, 81-113)

 Gardiner, S (2016) The Wanderer: The Story of Frank Soo. Stowmarket, Suffolk: Electric Blue Publishing.

Frank Soo: The unknown Chinese footballer who represented England Feature by Susan Gardiner for (12/7/16) online AT:

Glynne-Jones, T. (2010) Football yesterday and today. London: Carlton books.

Neil Kenlock (2016) interview for BBC documentary series Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusgosa [online] AT: (accessed 13 January 2017)

 Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunne The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1996) (accessed 5/12/16) At:

Luang, L.H. (2013) ‘Where exactly are my Chinese role models’ New Statesman [online] At:
(Accessed 17 December 2016)

Trish Morrissey artist’s own website can be accessed online AT:

Kate Peters Olympians can be seen at the artist’s own website AT: (accessed 7 January 2017)

Tsang, M. (2012) ‘Interview with Lord Wei’ East Meets West: A project celebrating the heritage, identity and aspirations of the British Born Chinese. [online] AT:

(Accessed 8 January 2017)


Assignment 5: Performance against assessment criteria

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I feel that I have finished the course well in a technical and visual sense producing a good quality image that reflects a strong commitment to improvement in this area throughout the course.

For this assignment I have begun to develop a relatively new skill to myself in using additional lighting and I have also significantly advanced my competence in the use and combinations of lens type / focal length / aperture, plus post editing and colour management.

Quality of outcome

I believe that this work is strong and I have tried to work on several levels whilst forming a coherent output. I believe that the core themes are to be found in the work and that sufficient due care and attention has been paid to produce a visually successful, thoughtful and reflective assignment.

Demonstration of creativity

I feel that I have been inventive and imaginative in order to create a project conceived through a process of evolving ideas. The concept is very personal on a number of levels and this reflects my desire to form my own personal voice.


I have followed a number of inter-related themes and undertaken significant research both written and visually for a sustained period of time before arriving at the final stages and this process has lasted for what seems to be a major part of this course.

I have also engaged significantly with my OCA peer group and have carefully considered various critical suggestions and I believe that these processes together have contributed considerably to the strength and depth of the final work.


Joel Sternfeld Colour Photographs 1977 – 1988 exhibition at Beetles and Huxley, London


Figure 1: Joel Sternfeld, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979. 

In 1980, as Ronald Reagan was in the process of being elected president, Joel Sternfeld was embarking on one of the many road trips across America he had been making since being awarded a Guggenheim grant in 1978. “The reason I am showing this work now,” he says of his forthcoming exhibition, “is that I remember feeling similar fears back then as I do now. If anything, there is an even stronger sense of apocalypse in the air today.” (O’Hagan, 2017)

Joel Sternfeld was continuing the traditions of Walker Evans and Robert Franks in documenting American life but this time following William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in seeing the country in colour. What resulted from Sternfeld’s road trips was one of the most influential bodies of work American Prospects first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987.

Beetles and Huxley describe how Sternfeld was, “photographing scenes rich with implied narrative, which were also distinct in their colour and composition… delicately balanced by subtle irony and humour.


Figure 2: Joel Sternfeld, McLean, Virgina, December 1978.  

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 shows this perfectly, a fire fighter shopping for a pumpkin at a farm market whilst a house on fire blazes in the background. The scene that Sternfeld had captured was a controlled training exercise, and a fire chief who was able to leave his post when the house was allowed to burn to the ground.” (Beetles and Huxley, 2017).

Along with many others I greatly admire Joel Sternfeld’s work and his ability to capture the beauty of the ordinary and everyday whilst adding that layer of complexity and often an implied narrative, foreseeing what seemed to be happening, behind the facade to America and it’s people.


Figure 3: Wet ‘N’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980.

I just love the cinematic style and presence of his composition, the forensic detail throughout the scene, the saturated colour, the bright skies and the whole familiarity thing yet strange peculiarity of the scenes is just fantastic. Sternfeld called the underlying theme of his work as “The utopian vision of America contrasted with the dystopian one.”

I felt that these prints were works of art that completely encapsulates the twentieth century; through the ubiquity and ambiguity of photography, the distanced familiarity, obsession and spread of American culture, the strange authenticities and ordinariness of the everyday that always seem to hint at a deep lying disappointment over ambitious and failed aspirations.

I have a deep respect for the work of the American colour photographers, Joel Sternfeld and his influences, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and they offer so many classic lessons to students of photographic art.

Joel Sternfeld I feel took his work to another level by developing those complex ambiguous narratives of America and Americans within what seem to be vast compositions that now seem so familiar in TV, cinema and media. Really brilliant work.


O’Hagan, S. (2017) The drifter: Joel Sternfeld on his sly glimpse of wild America – Seen from the endless highway. In: The Guardian [online] At: (accessed 20 February 2017)

Images – All taken from The Guardian [online] At: (accessed 20 February 2017)

Figure 1: Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1978.

Figure 2: McLean, Virgina, December 1978.

Figure 3: Wet ‘N’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980.